On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Docket No. L-844-06.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 17, 2007
Before Judges Weissbard, S.L. Reisner and Baxter.
Plaintiff Rhonda Bosland purchased a vehicle from defendant Warnock Dodge on March 13, 2003. Defendant charged her $117 for a "registration fee," but plaintiff later learned that the actual official registration fee charged by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) was only $97. After plaintiff realized that she had been overcharged $20, she filed a class action complaint charging violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -20, (count one) and the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA), N.J.S.A. 56:12-14 to -18, (count two), and unjust enrichment (count three). Defendant moved to dismiss the amended complaint*fn1 with prejudice for failure to state a claim. The trial court granted that motion on September 25, 2006. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the dismissal of her complaint was error. We agree with her contentions concerning the first two counts, disagree with her arguments concerning count three, and reverse the dismissal of the first two counts.
When plaintiff purchased a 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee from defendant on March 13, 2003, the dealership presented her with a Retail Buyer's Order that itemized the fees and costs. The Buyer's Order listed a registration fee of $117, but failed to specify that the registration fee included fees or charges for anything other than the official cost of the registration itself. The applicable MVC fee at the time consisted of a $77 official registration fee and a $20 fee for issuing a motor vehicle title without a lien, for a total of $97.
As a result of the $20 overcharge, three years later on March 22, 2006, plaintiff filed her complaint. In his written opinion granting defendant's motion to dismiss, the judge observed that all three counts of plaintiff's complaint were premised upon a violation of the Automotive Sales Practices Regulations (regulations). Those regulations permit automotive dealers to charge a "documentary service fee" for preparing, processing and filing documents necessary to register the motor vehicle for the customer. N.J.A.C. 13:45A-26B.1. The regulations, however, require the dealer to "itemiz[e] the actual documentary service which is being performed and set forth in writing on the sale document the price for each specific documentary service." N.J.A.C. 13:45A-26B.2(a)(2)(i).
In dismissing plaintiff's CFA claim, the judge held that "plaintiff fails to allege facts that defendant took this money for the performance of its duties relating to documentary services." The judge provided a second reason for dismissing the CFA claim when he stated that "plaintiff never complained about these overages, so it seems counter-intuitive to consider these fees unconscionable and an ascertainable loss . . . .
[T]hese fees were defendant's profit or fees for processing or handling these papers which plaintiff, as a consumer, paid without objection."
Regarding the TCCWNA claim, the judge held that "there are insufficient factual allegations to establish" that "the contract was unclear and not easy to read." Finally, the judge dismissed the unjust enrichment claim in count three, holding that "plaintiff did not confer any benefit upon defendant that was separate and distinct from the written contract."
We pause briefly to emphasize the liberality with which a trial court is required to analyze a plaintiff's complaint before dismissing it for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. R. 4:6-2(e). We "review such a motion by the same standard applied by the trial court." Sickles v. Cabot Corp, 379 N.J. Super. 100, 106 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 185 N.J. 297 (2005). Thus, our "inquiry is limited to examining the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint." Printing Mart-Morristown v. Sharp Elecs. Corp., 116 N.J. 739, 746 (1989). Because such motions are brought at a very early stage in the litigation, every reasonable inference is accorded the plaintiff and "a trial court should grant a dismissal 'in only the rarest of instances.'" NCP Litig. Trust v. KPMG LLP, 187 N.J. 353, 365 (2006)(quoting Printing Mart, supra, 116 N.J. at 772).
Further, when reviewing a Rule 4:6-2(e) dismissal, we "search the complaint in depth and with liberality to ascertain whether the fundament of a cause of action may be gleaned even from an obscure statement of claim . . . ." Printing Mart, supra, 116 N.J. at 746 (quoting Di Cristofaro v. Laurel Grove Mem'l Park, 43 N.J. Super. 244, 252 (App. Div. 1957)). Consequently, "[t]he examination of a complaint's allegations of fact . . . should be one that is at once painstaking and undertaken with a generous and hospitable approach." Ibid.
We begin our analysis with the trial court's dismissal of the CFA count. The Legislature enacted the CFA in 1960 "to address rampant consumer complaints about fraudulent practices in the marketplace and to deter such conduct by merchants." ...